Hiring Advice from PR Pros

As part of The Plank Center’s ongoing Interviews with PR Legends & Leaders series, we ask world-class public relations professionals to weigh in on what factors matter most when hiring entry-level professionals.

ALICIA THOMPSON: So when hiring the entry level positions in our company, there’s a couple of things I look for. First, is going to seem really odd, but it’s, I call it fire in the belly. More than competency, more than an ability to write well, I want somebody that has a fire in the belly. They have a passion for it, they want to do it, they are persistent. And they are really ready to dig in and get the job done. Second would be strong writing skills. I cannot reinforce how strongly we need good writers in this industry. Though what we write has definitely changed, and we are more content delivery people now. I think writing is by far the second skill set that would be important on the top of the list. And the third would be a great work ethic. We are not necessarily an 8:30 to 5:30 kind of industry. And so we need to look for people that are willing to put in the hours knowing that there’s a payoff at the end.

PAT FORDWe want most of all to see someone who has already demonstrated a serious commitment to this profession. And that doesn’t mean that you’ve had PR jobs because you’re probably coming for an entry-level job but it means that you’ve done internships in college and you can show how those apply to challenges my organization might face, or our clients might face. So you’ve done some research first of all on what those challenges might be. You’re asking questions. You don’t have to come in being an expert on everything. You should be asking questions and showing an inquisitive nature and some insightful observations or questions that will let us then see how you’ll apply that, those skills and those tendencies toward the work you’ll do with us. And most important, focus in that period in school but also in your early professional years in developing your core communication skills, especially writing but also active listening and trying to understand the greater world in which our clients are operating. Because that’s going to, and they then use that to apply their skills. This will be a really successful career.

DR. DIANA MARTINELLI: If I were to hire a public relations entry-level position today, the strongest factor in my decision would be strong writing skills– secondly would be experience, experience through internships, experience through work, extracurricular activities, PRSSA, and also telling me that they really have a passion for the field and that they really are eager to contribute to the organization in which I’m working.

KEVIN SAGHY: So we’re hiring someone entry level for our field. Honesty and integrity is number one because you have to be able to trust who you’re working with and you also have to convey that trust to our publics for our organization. Writing is a skill set that we depend on heavily, so that’s a ticket to play in terms of getting an interview, getting in the door. I think work ethic is very important in this industry. We work hard. We work long hours sometimes, so you want to know that that person you bring on board is gonna be next to you late at night. And then large picture strategy. Ultimately, you want to know that, as practitioners, whatever we’re doing ties to the larger organizational goals. And they should be a strong practitioner, but they should also have a little humility to know that we can always learn. So you never want to bring someone on board that’s resistant to constructive feedback, and not able to grow.

RICK LOOSERExperience is king when it comes to hiring decisions especially for those that are without experience, and so you need to convince me that you’ve got relevant experience. Relevant experience isn’t the fact that you were the publicity chairman of the spirit committee for your sorority, for your fraternity. It may look good on a resume, but in the real world, we all know what that means, which is, not really anything. So if you want to impress that future employer, then it needs to be something that translates into something that they won’t have to teach you and that you can bring to the table. And so when I taught seniors last spring, you know one of the things I told them is, you’ve got a guy like me that’s over 50 years old and you’re sitting down to interview. You need to pick out what you want to talk about that will make me think I could use that. If you’re a recent graduate looking for that job, then I would pick your battle. I would pick your area of expertise, which isn’t going to be crisis communication or investor relations. You’re at that age and that stage in your life never going to know anything is going to impress anybody. But if all of a sudden you tell me that you put together the social media plan for a nonprofit organization that has now got, 10,000 likes or something like that you’ve done, then social media is being run all over the world by 25-year-olds. Most of Washington policy is being written by 25-year-olds. That’s something I can use, that’s something I can trust you with, that’s something you can teach me. So find something that you may not have five years of experience in, but you’ve learned about. And something that might be a weakness, or might not be as big of a strong point for that agency or that organization, in order to help get your foot in the door.

DR. BRUCE BERGER: Some of the most important factors, I think, in looking at new hires and judging young people coming into jobs. In other words, trying to decide whether to hire someone or not, there are a lot of things that we look at. It’s kind of a complex process in thinking about it because you know, in the real world, typically you get lots of resumes, you get dozens, or you get hundreds of resumes for positions. And they’re all pretty nicely done usually. So how do you begin to sort out, what are the factors that become really important? Many of those pop during an interview. The resume helps you eliminate some. But the kinds of things that would count for me and did count for me when I was in the professional world, in hiring was one, of course, what are the communication capabilities? Can they write and can they speak? Those are pretty foundational kinds of things. Are they creative? What do they do to demonstrate that they have passion and positive energy in fact that they can bring to the job? How would they fit into the culture of your particular organization? Do they seem to be people who can work on their own, in other words, do they have self-initiative? So there are eight or ten or 12 things that become important, and what you’re really looking, what I want to see happen is I want to see something pop. We talk about the “it” factor. I want to hire somebody who has It. And if you interview ten or 12 people and you start to look at it, there is going to be somebody who pops, somebody who differentiates himself or herself a little bit more than everybody else in the interview. That’s the person I want to hire. So for students entering the field, think about how you can differentiate yourself in a positive way from everybody else and then make it happen.

JULIA HOOD: The factors that I weigh when I am looking for an entry-level person in my organization, in my media company, is passion that absolutely grabs you by the throat from across the table. Especially when you’re at the early stages of your career. It’s about having the energy and the drive to say, I want to take whatever’s coming in this role. That I’m not looking for a job description that is absolutely to the letter. For a job title that gives me some external validation, but what doesn’t have much meaning. I’m looking to make discoveries in this organization and then let those discoveries, apply them to my next decisions and my next choices. And it comes in an absolute passionate individual who isn’t afraid to show me who they are. Don’t pretend to know all the answers, but show me that you are enterprising and engaging enough to go find out the answers.

MARIA RUSSELL: I would like to see examples of their inquisitiveness and how it helped them either in internship or in an early job. I like to know what they read every day. What newspapers or other news sources they use every day. What blogs they’re reading. I want to see the curious person, the inquisitive person and I want to see if they can approach problems that are perhaps done in a very untraditional way. Coming at it from a different perspective. And I think this comes from not only the textbook learning of our classrooms, but from internships, and from taking leadership positions in student organizations, campus organizations, community organizations. So those are the kinds of questions I’d like to ask them.

RON CULP: I shouldn’t probably give out my secrets, but I have the receptionist test. And if there’s somebody that comes in for an interview and I wonder if this person might be just right for the job, I’ll go talk to Georgia and ask her what she thought of the person. And usually, it confirms my point of view. And it’s first impressions. It’s being able to treat everyone equally and come in. And if you’re pleasant to the receptionist and everyone along the way, so that goes through personality. And then two writing and too many young people can’t write well. And I just find that it’s critical, and so we give a writing test. And every time, every time I’ve agreed to hire anyone under a C, like a C minus writer, I made a mistake. So I think that personality and writing, we can train everything into the experience because you will need those two essentials to survive and to thrive in the profession.

MARK HARRIS: When I hire people today, it’s almost, always on the basis of intangible things. It’s things I did not know about them before they walked in into my office, right? I’ve read about them, I’ve checked them out on Facebook, I’ve seen their resume, I’ve acquired their clips, I’ve seen their college portfolios. And they’re all good, right? I mean they don’t get into the interview without having crossed that threshold. It’s always the things that I can learn in the course of conversation, what they can demonstrate to be about their level of curiosity, their world view. Have they traveled? Do they own a passport? I check for things like this. I think they matter, actually. I want people with as broad of perspective coming into my organization as I can possibly acquire. And then the second thing I always, today try to gauge is, and it’s not that hard. But how comfortable are they as a person, a practitioner, who can help lead my organization in this era of social business or social media. Kids coming out of school grew up with it. But if I’m making a professional hire, someone who’s been out of school for 10 or 15 or 20 years, I do try to gauge how comfortable are they with social media and the tools that are not they’re not even tools, they’re just the wallpaper that we’re going to walk around in for the rest of our lives. And if we don’t know how to exploit them effectively, on behalf of the organizations we work for, we’re operating at too big a deficit, and I just don’t think we can afford that.

ANN BARKEWLEW: What we’re looking or today is smart people. We want people who are street smart, too. We want people that know how business works and how organizations work. We want people that have a broad base of experience. And we want people who are good writers. When I interview young people, and I say to them, tell me about the news writing courses you took. And they go, well and they want to show me big papers they’ve written. Well, it’s a long time before you write big papers. I want to know what are your basic writing skills. I want to see a spark of creativity. I love to toss a problem out and say if you ended up on this assignment, what do you think you could contribute or how would you handle this? What would you suggest that this company do to solve a problem? And if there is just a blank look or no spark of creativity then, and we don’t even give them a writing test at that point. So, I think really being smart, do you understand what I mean by that? I don’t mean a straight-A student. But being smart and wise and being able to work with other people is very, very, very important.

BILL HEYMAN: We look for people who exude integrity and have those intangibles those kinds of interpersonal skills that make you want to gravitate towards trying to help that person. I also think in our organization and it’s a fine line between that arrogance piece to what I’m about to say but I really relish the people. I know I said this earlier on, I really relish the fact that people at my organization can come in and tell me when I’m wrong. And I like when I’m interviewing somebody who can tactfully tell me that, or deliver the message to me. Not that this will not just be sort of a, well here’s the old guy who’s been doing this for a long time. I’m the young person I’m going to take everything they say as gospel because it’s got to be a give and take. One plus one has to equal three and I think hiring people that have those intangibles is really what makes organizations successful whether its public relation firms or executive search firms.

ANDRE TAYLOR: First thing is the ability to write. Because you’re going to find that most entry-level jobs and in public relations, that is important. You’re going to walk in there and you’re going to have to be able to write. Second thing would be strong interpersonal skills, how you get along with people, and how you present yourself. And then, how you really manage your own reputation. Those are key elements and the other one that’s been mentioned earlier. Also, would be a diverse background. If you’re coming straight out of school, I want you to be able to tell me, well I worked on this campaign, and on this campaign. I managed the copywriting on this campaign. I managed the media relations on this campaign, and on this campaign, I managed this. Just a broad, base experience to show a broad level of skills.

DR. BRYAN REBER: If I was hiring a new public relations professional today, the kinds of things I would look for would be some level of experience through internships or that sort of thing, but more importantly, I think a willingness to be a creative thinker. That doesn’t mean that you have to be creative in the designing a brochure sense, but being a creative thinker, and problem solver. I also think that it’s important to have someone who listens, and distills, and then can synthesize information and share it. Is this person going to be a good colleague? Is this someone who’s going to work well with our various constituent groups, and various publics? Those are the kinds of things I would look for.

JOANNE BISCHMANN: I look for well-rounded people. I was taught years and years ago by someone who was one of my mentors, that the best people are people that have a broad background. They can understand everything from history to English, to mathematics. Because of this, they can interact with all types of people and they can understand all types of problems and situations, that’s what I look for. I look for people who are interested in a lot of different things, and have that broad background. They can really handle themselves in all different types of situations. I look for curiosity, I look for people that are looking at what could be, not what is.